Recipients of 2017 farm grants reflect the growing strength of the diversified agricultural system in western North Carolina. WNC Agricultural Options awarded 35 farm businesses a total of $201,000 in $3,000 and $6,000 grants on Thursday at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River.
Farms are creating jobs in areas in great need of employment. Their premium goods are creating a reputation in other parts of the country.
The N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission is the exclusive financial supporter of WNC AgOptions, which aims to build sustainable farming communities in the mountain region by providing resources directly to farmers. Three of the 2017 recipients received $3,000 while 32 received $6,000.
Jessica and Aron Wher of Wehrloom Honey in Graham County expect that their mead, a honey-based wine, will gain a national customer base. Nationwide, there are fewer than 300 meaderies in the country, in comparison to nearly 9,000 fruit-based wineries. They are also incorporating their meadery into their local retail center and educational center, where they sell honey products and offer a pollinator walking path for visitors.
“What began in 2011 as a hobby quickly became a passion, and, in our community—where little job opportunities were to be had—a full-time job for both myself and my husband,” Jessica Wher said. “We have spent the last five years dedicating countless hours to creating a business that fully supports our family and two other full-time employees.” As their business expands, they expect to hire more employees. Job creation is critically important in Graham County.
Eight other recipients anticipate hiring additional workers due to this year’s grant. Half of the awarded farms are already full-fledged businesses supporting at least one full-time farmer, in some cases due to past WNC AgOptions grants. At least three additional farmers expect to be full-time by the end of the season.
While most recipients feed the continued booming demand for local products, some are also responding to regional, national and even global markets. Gabriel Noard of Pangaea Plants in Rutherford County said large medicinal herb suppliers like Mountain Rose have reached out to him since he has started drying and processing large quantities of herbs. Lisa Black of Fields of Gold in Henderson County expects her goat milk gelato to be sold in 10 new cities, including Charlotte.
Cathy Guthrie Bennett of Doubletree Farm in Madison County has started selling her sorghum syrup to a wholesale client, Anson Mills, LLC. “The Anson Mills chef client base is global, and each year we have a waiting list for Double Tree Farm sorghum syrup,” Anson Mills President Glenn Roberts said.
Awarded projects often have high potential for demonstration to other diversifying growers in the region. Susan Owen of The Lily Patch Farm in Watauga County, who is expanding her pawpaw orchard, said that the native fruit has potential in all sorts of markets. The banana-like fruit and custard-like pulp can be sold to local food markets; the tree seedlings can be marketed to landscapers and homeowners; and the seed can go to plant breeders.
“America’s largest native fruit has largely been forgotten due to its inability to be commercially shipped to grocery stores,” Owen said. She’s made it her goal to teach other growers about the potential of the pawpaw tree, which has minimal pest issues and is key for the survival of the Zebra swallowtail butterfly since the tree is a host plant for the caterpillar.
Each of the recipients has a special story. Like Rodney Wise, an automobile body mechanic who is finally taking on his 10-year-long dream of starting a mushroom farm and turning his 20-year-old farming hobby into a potentially lucrative business. Or the brother and sister team, Tracy Cavagnaro and Todd Kirmss, who are reshaping their family’s apple orchard, keeping it alive in memory of their late mother, who struggled with cancer for years, and in memory of their late stepfather, who was very devoted to the fruit trees. Or the Christmas tree farm owner, Joey Miller, who is putting the farm front-and-center after his father recently passed. Up to this point, he has only farmed on the side while he drove a bus and performed odd jobs to make ends meet, despite his love for the farm.
“N.C. Cooperative Extension is excited to be a part of a program that is making such impressive impacts in the agricultural community,” said Ross Young, Madison County Extension Director and WNC AgOptions steering committee leader. “Agriculture is a thriving and ever-changing economic engine in western North Carolina with new enterprises and creative ideas emerging daily. WNC AgOptions plays a crucial role in helping many of these farmers fulfill a dream that may not be attainable otherwise.”
Since 2004, WNC AgOptions has awarded 491 farm projects more than $2.3 million. The N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission has promised $239,000 for WNC AgOptions to distribute to farm businesses in 2018.
The administrator of WNC AgOptions is WNC Communities, a non-profit organization that has been supporting agriculture in the region since 1947. WNC Communities provides a unique forum for leaders in western North Carolina to carry out innovative programs to improve the quality of life for rural communities and to enhance the agricultural economy.
“WNC Communities is honored to be the administrator of this annual funding opportunity designed to support farmers in their quest to try new techniques or implement innovative farming practices,” said Linda Lamp, Executive Director of WNC Communities. “WNC AgOptions strengthens our agricultural community, ultimately benefiting us all.”
“The N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission is privileged to have a strong partner in WNC Communities,” said Bill Teague, Chairman of the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission. “In the past two years, the Commission was able to create or sustain nearly 300 North Carolina jobs, while assisting with farmer-driven projects impacting nearly 5,000 acres.”
Members of the WNC AgOptions steering committee include: representatives from N.C. Cooperative Extension, N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services–Marketing Division, WNC Communities, Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project and other leaders in agribusiness. For more information, see the following: WNC Agricultural Options: www.wncagoptions.org; N.C. Cooperative Extension Centers: www.ces.ncsu.edu; N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission: www.tobaccotrustfund.org; WNC Communities: www.wnccommunities.org.